Rich African gives new clues to Roman Britain

Fri Feb 26, 2010 11:10am EST
 
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By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Tests on the skeleton of a rich 4th century Roman woman found in Britain reveal she was of black African ancestry, a discovery experts said proved the island's multi-cultural origins were much earlier than thought.

Archaeologists from the University of Reading re-examined the remains of the "Ivory Bangle Lady" unearthed in a stone coffin in the northern city of York in 1901.

Roman York (Eboracum) was both a legionary fortress and civilian settlement and later became the capital of Britannia inferior, one of two of the island's Roman provinces.

Using new forensic techniques that included analyzing her facial features, measuring her skull and evaluating what she eat, they were able to say she had both "black" and "white" ancestry and was of high social standing.

The team concluded she was most likely of North African descent and may have migrated to York from somewhere warmer, possibly the Mediterranean.

The unusual burial rites accorded to her, and the grave goods found by her side, including jet and elephant ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants and beads backed the evidence.

"Multi-cultural Britain is not just a phenomenon of more modern times," said senior lecturer at the university Dr Hella Eckardt who lead the research.

She said the analysis of the bones and others like them "contradicts common popular assumptions about the make up of Roman-British populations as well as the view that African immigrants in Roman Britain were of low status, male and likely to have been slaves."

York was visited by two Roman emperors, the North African born Septimius Severus, and later Constantius I, father of Constantine the Great who embraced Christianity and was crowned in the city by the army on his father's death.

(Editing by Steve Addison)